Brenda Barnes

L.A.’s Classical Radio Maven Doesn’t Need to Turn Up the Volume. In Fact, KUSC’s President Is Just Fine With Silence.


The Stocking Frame
911 South Hill Street
Los Angeles, CA

The Tab

(2) sangrias
$10.00 + tip
Barnes’ Tip for the Road: Don’t put off doing things that you really want to do.

On our way over to happy hour drinks from her downtown office, Brenda Barnes marvels at the glut of construction projects on South Hill Street. “Change,” she tells me, “is in the DNA of L.A.”

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It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, but it sounds weightier coming from the president of nonprofit public radio station KUSC-FM; classical music, after all, stridently resists change. The bar Barnes has chosen, The Stocking Frame, looks brand-new, with high ceilings, polished wood floors, and a studiously hip vibe. There’s even a plant growing out of a patch of dirt next to our table.

Barnes tells me that the pace of change in L.A. suits her style. “I love change. I like to do new things. I’m not a maintenance manager,” she says. “If someone needs a maintenance manager, I’m not their person. I’ll go crazy.”

Barnes grew up in North Carolina. “I joke that my background’s 100 percent white trash—but it’s not a joke,” she says, explaining that her father didn’t have a birth certificate and grew up without heat, electricity, or running water. Her mother was the daughter of a West Virginia coal miner.

“Music became a way of expressing emotion in an environment where it was not the norm,” she tells me.

Barnes started playing clarinet in fifth grade and studied the instrument through graduate school. She was planning a career teaching clarinet at the college level when she was diagnosed with TMJ, a jaw disorder that made long hours of practice painful.

She switched gears to study musicology at Notre Dame University, but soon discovered that academia wasn’t the right fit either. So, armed with two master’s degrees and knowledge of what she didn’t want to do, Barnes turned to What Color Is Your Parachute? Following advice from the job-hunters’ bible, she called around to interview people in career fields she thought might be interesting. She connected with the program director at the classical public station in Chapel Hill, where she grew up—and found a job in a small town in northwestern Iowa, where “there were many more ears of corn than people.” That was almost 30 years ago, and Barnes has been in radio ever since.

“Public radio stations are the only nonprofit providers of music. Everybody is in it to make money. We’re in it to just break even.”

Back then, being a woman in the business was a challenge; Barnes had a showdown with her boss—the president of the college with which the station was affiliated—before she was promoted to general manager. Today, the challenge is new media technology. About a decade ago, Barnes tells me, “It got to the point where I realized that this technology stuff wasn’t going to go away.”

Barnes remembers hearing people saying things like, “The Internet is going to mean localism is dead.” But that was just a gut feeling; Barnes wanted to find the data that would help her figure out how technology was changing radio. In 2004, she enrolled in a doctoral program at USC’s Price School of Public Policy for professionals who want to study a problem in their field. She feels like she’s since gotten a handle on how technology is changing us, our culture, and the world. But what she didn’t get from the program (which she completed in 2009), or afterward, was a specific path forward for KUSC (or “all the answers,” for that matter, she says).

So far, new technologies haven’t shrunk KUSC’s audience. The station’s listeners are generally over 50—which is how it’s always been with classical radio. (Barnes says people typically will grow up with classical music, turn to rock and pop, and eventually return to classical.) Plus, the algorithms used by streaming services like Pandora and Spotify don’t work well for classical music. And, according to Barnes, classical music benefits a great deal from the context provided by hosts, especially because the pieces are longer than three- or four-minute pop songs.

In addition to launching an interactive division, KUSC streams music online and has developed a number of apps. The station is looking to do more in the digital space, but music rights are a major barrier to innovation.

I tell Barnes that I want to listen to an upcoming program featuring three straight hours of classical guitarist Andrés Segovia on KUSC, but I won’t be available the entire time it’s on-air. Accustomed to Netflix and iTunes, I ask if I can stream it later. I’m out of luck—and even if I wanted to stream Segovia simultaneously, I couldn’t. The station can’t stream more than three consecutive songs by one artist online because of Digital Millennium Copyright Act regulations.

When it comes to technological innovation, Barnes tells me, “regulation lags behind practice.” Record companies don’t like the iTunes model, but they weren’t able to stop it from taking over. They were able, however, to lobby Congress to develop rules on how broadcasting transitions to the Internet.

KUSC can’t play music on-demand or on podcasts; when it comes to doing anything more than streaming live broadcasts, they’re regulated just like a commercial streaming service. “Public radio stations are the only nonprofit providers of music,” says Barnes. “Everybody is in it to make money. We’re in it to just break even.” KUSC and KCRW, like any nonprofit station, also serve as curators and advocates for artists, Barnes argues—but this hasn’t been recognized in the way new media is regulated. Barnes and others are working to change these regulations at the national level.

Barnes, whose husband is a minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Newhall, spends a lot of time listening to the station. For years she commuted from Santa Clarita, spending many hours in the car evaluating KUSC programs, though recently she bought a condo downtown to shorten her weekday commute. But she doesn’t only listen to classical music; Barnes loves rock ’n’ roll and jazz (she gets particularly animated talking about a musicology paper she wrote on the Jerome Kerns-Oscar Hammerstein II musical Show Boat). Many people tell Barnes that they like classical music because it helps them focus while they work, but as a former musician, she’s never been able to do that; she can’t relegate music to the background. She’s either all in—or not.

“I’m kind of fine with silence,” she admits, which is nothing I haven’t heard before, but somehow it sounds weightier coming from a radio lifer.